Al Ewing began writing short stories for 2000AD, he then worked on several other projects before moving on to his debut novel in 2007 – Pax Britannia: El Sombra. Currently Al is the lead writer for Marvel Comics’ ongoing series Loki: Agent of Asgard.
How did you get into writing?
I’ve been writing in one form or another since a very young age – once they stopped doing ‘creative writing’ exercises at school, I found other outlets for it – short plays, sketches, short stories and various other bits and pieces. I picked up the basics of comics scripting from a few places – there were samples floating around in things like annuals and Warren Ellis’s COME IN ALONE column – and during 2001 I sent off my first submission to 2000AD, which was accepted the following year. That was the first time I was ever paid for my writing, and it all snowballed from there – I gradually made more sales and got some assignments, and after ten years or so enough people were paying attention that I could get American work.
Do you prefer writing shorter stories or long arching narratives?
I tend to prefer short stories – usually my longer narratives are made up of shorter stories, with each issue or chapter being relatively complete in and of itself. I enjoy long-form narratives, but I prefer to have a rough idea of the ending in mind and then find my way to it organically in short jumps, rather than have the whole thing plotted out from the get-go. I usually have the big beats in mind, and let the rest come together naturally.
Any advice for writers wanting to get into the comics industry?
Don’t rely on being noticed. Don’t rely on anything, in fact.
Start small and finish what you start.
If there’s somewhere, like 2000AD, that accepts unsolicited submissions, read their guidelines carefully – don’t send in something badly spelled and wrongly formatted and expect them to look past it, because it’ll go straight in the bin without a word read.
Nobody owes you a second glance or even a first one.
If you can’t tell a story in a maximum of two pages – and I’m being generous – you’re not a writer, so learn to do that first.
Try not to bother working writers while you learn – writers aren’t editors, so the help they can offer is limited, and if you can’t develop a realistic sense of how good a piece is when you read it back, you’ll never amount to anything anyway.
Persevere, because you will be rejected many, many times.
On the bright side, what with the web and various self-publishing tools, it’s never been easier to write something, finish it, and get it drawn and self-published. Nothing is holding you back from getting something out there – even if not paid for – except yourself.
Do you think that, with the success of superhero movies over the past few years, the market for new characters has been harmed in any way?
I suppose audiences are more comfortable with characters they know, but that’s been the case for a long time – since before the recent superhero movie boom. Having a book with an entirely new character has always been a bit of a gamble, and to be honest I can’t think of the last one that really took off. I don’t know how Talon’s doing with DC – that’s probably the newest example.
What’s your creative process like? Do you need to be in a darkened room with a specific drink at hand? Or is it more social for you?
At this point, deadlines are very useful. If someone says ‘we need this in a X days’, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. Not that I’m not motivated before then, but I have a tendency to noodle a little in the early stages and having a clear goal-line in mind is a huge help.
Solitude is good for working, music is good – I find playing the same track over and over until it’s just a general mood that doesn’t impinge on your consciousness can help a lot. Caffeine is good, but I’m trying to cut back. The internet is great for easy research, but bad for keeping focused – distraction is only a click away. It can take a lot of willpower not to succumb, but again, if I’m up against a tricky deadline I find myself getting very focused.
Showers are good for working out thorny plot points. Without fail, there will be a part of any issue I get badly stuck on and have to walk away from – take a shower, walk to the post office, do the washing up. Usually the answer that comes to me is to remove something I was clinging to, which turns out to be the thing that was stopping me from finding the easy solution.
In your opinion, what is the best way for a new writer to get a publisher to read their work?
Get published elsewhere first. Which sounds like a Catch-22, but with the exception of that very first unsolicited submission, it’s how my career has worked. That’s why it’s so important to have places like 2000AD that accept unsolicited submissions – and why it’s so important to put your own stuff out as much as possible. Even if it doesn’t help, it can’t hurt. It’s practice.
At some point every writer will receive a rejection letter, what’s your coping mechanism for when that happens?
Look at what was wrong and try not to do it again. If there’s no indication of what was wrong, it’s a bad rejection letter. Either way, get back on the horse as soon as possible and start thinking up the next idea. A rejection letter is permission to send a new thing.
Do you think writers should constantly be publicising their own work? If so, how?
I think writers should, in the modern age, attempt to publicise themselves. I have no idea how to do it. Cultivating a cult of personality is one way, but that can trap you in a persona – I was “the weird writer” for a while, and it limited me. These days I enjoy being a virtual hermit, within reason. I try to be open and friendly, thank people when I can and answer any question I’m asked as politely and professionally as possible. But I like keeping my interactions relatively private and personal.
That said, I think if I was doing a creator-owned book, I’d be much more pro-active about spreading the word far and wide.
Who is your favourite superhero and why? Has it changed because of who you’ve worked for?
When I was a kid, I liked the Hulk, because he was big and green and viscerally interesting, and then because I was the right age to appreciate the intricacies of Peter David’s run. I don’t think I have a favourite superhero these days – Morrison’s Batman came close, but once he left the character lost me. My favourites these days are probably the ones I’m working on – I have a huge attachment for Luke Cage and company. But then, that’s part of the job – you find yourself caring very strongly about the characters you write.
Any sneaky hints about your newest series, Loki: Agent of Asgard?
It’s a lot of fun! I’m enjoying seeing the reaction online to each new twist – and there are a lot of twists coming. Beyond that, I couldn’t possibly comment.